KNIK -- With the Settlers Bay post office closed without warning, infuriated Knik-area customers and the Alaska congressional delegation lashed out at the U.S. Postal Service.
The Postal Service's Office of Inspector General indefinitely closed the Knik contract post office Friday after receiving "an allegation regarding the possible delay of U.S. mail," according to an email from John Masters, assistant special agent in charge for the agency's western area that includes Alaska.
Special agents with the Office of Inspector General as well as Postal Service inspectors and staff "located and removed mail from the facility" and moved it to Wasilla for processing and delivery, Masters wrote. The mail at the center of the allegation included standard and first-class items as well as periodicals and parcels.
He wouldn't provide any other specifics about the allegation.
Scores of postal customers who live in the busy Knik-Goose Bay corridor that stretches from Point MacKenzie to Wasilla complained Monday about the sudden decision to shutter the post office, forcing them to drive into the city to stand in line for an hour to pick up mail still being sorted from over the weekend.
"I was really angry. I thought it was outrageous," said Lisa Tuttle, who showed up at the closed post office Monday to get information about mail pickup and sign a petition. "This is unbelievable. It's like holding the mail hostage."
By Monday afternoon, the offices of U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and U.S. Rep. Don Young issued a letter to U.S. Postal Service Inspector General David Williams questioning the abrupt closure "without prior public notice."
The letter poses a series of questions, such as when the allegations were raised, why customers weren't notified prior to the closure and how long the closure will last.
"Given the geographical challenges in our state, and the distance that separates small communities from larger hubs, Alaska's reliance on the USPS is unique," the delegation stated. "Because of this, it is crucial that locations like Knik CPU #2 are open and available to the communities that rely so greatly on them."
At contract facilities like the one at Settlers Bay, a private contractor operates mail and package services and administers post-office boxes, according to Postal Service spokesman Ernie Swanson. There are 1,600 boxes at the Knik contract post office, he said. It opened under contract in 2001.
There are 79 contract post offices of two different types in Alaska.
Prominent homebuilder Chuck Spinelli holds the Settlers Bay postal contract. Spinelli said he found out about the closure at 11 p.m. Friday during a trip to California after he emerged from a Doors tribute band concert to find his phone loaded with messages.
Spinelli said the government hasn't told him anything about the focus of the investigation.
"I just do not know what they're talking about," he said Monday while getting ready to return to Alaska. "I'm at a loss totally."
As far as Spinelli knows, he said, he still holds the contract and the post office staff are still employed. Four staff, including unit manager Nina Vignola, work at the post office.
Vignola posted a message at the facility blaming the closure on "contract negotiations" and urging customers to contact the local postmaster for details on mail and packages.
"I apologize, I did not know until 5:30 p.m. while working," she wrote. "Thank you for all your support and patronage."
A stack of fliers set out front of the Settlers Bay post office in a cardboard box urged customers to call the Alaska delegation -- once a day "at a minimum! Be polite and firm!"
The flier blamed understaffing and the Knik-Fairview area's population explosion.
"I DO NOT WANT THE UNITED STATES POST OFFICE!" it said. "I WANT MY Contract Post Office That is Close to me BACK -- NOW!!!!"
So many Knik customers thronged to Wasilla's post office Monday they had to wait in a separate line.
Joe Jacobson stood waiting around noon. A baby fussed. No one reported problems with significant mail delays at Settlers Bay before Friday.
Jacobson said if the Knik post office doesn't reopen, he'll lose the zip code that's linked to everything from vehicle titles to credit card payments to Veterans Administration business.
"It's not as simple as moving a post-office box," he said. "There's a lot more involved with it."
Ken Fontecchio, another Settlers Bay customer, said he counted 1,730 boxes at the post office and wondered if the Postal Service would be reimbursing box holders.
People pay $146 a year for the boxes, Fontecchio said. "Some of these people just renewed ... We call and call. Nobody will answer at the main post office."
The allegations of delayed mail could be a possible violation of sections of federal code dealing with hiding, destroying, delaying or opening letters, mail, postcards, packages, bags or newspapers, according to the email from Masters.
"The USPS OIG considers the aforementioned allegations to be a very serious matter. When these types of allegations are made, USPS OIG Special Agents vigorously investigate these matters, as we did in this instance," he said. "It is important to note that an allegation is merely an accusation."
Postal Service officials say they don't know how long the investigation will take.
"I really can't tell you," Masters said in another email. "These investigations are all different. It just depends on the size and the scope. This is very early into the inquiry."
Displaced customers can pick up mail at the Wasilla Main Post Office, located at 401 N. Main St. from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Customers can call 907-376-5327 and press 9 at the prompt for questions about mail pickup and delivery.
For additional information, call the Postal Services Alaska Consumer Affairs office at 907-564-2828.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing